The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Monday, December 14, 2009

828 Royal Avenue - Going, going?

Here is another story of a house that I ended up researching due to its imminent demolition. (See my much earlier post on the Andrew Edward Lees House that stood at 909 Richards). To any who pass by this little pioneer cottage on the busy 800 block of New Westminster's Royal Avenue, the house must look like a tear down. It is definitely worse for wear. With all of New Westminster's beautifully restored Victorian and Edwardian beauties, this little house probably get not much more attention than an acknowledgement as an eyesore. But you and I know, every house has a story. Actually this house, which was likely built in the mid-1880s, has many fascinating stories to tell. So here is what I found...

BC Archives Photo H-00332 New Westminster, Gilley Brother's Dray. Circa 190? Photographer: Unknown

After Irving House, the house at 828 Royal Avenue is reputed to be one of the oldest houses remaining on the south side of Royal Avenue. Local historian, heritage expert, and author Jim Wolf dates the house to the mid-1880s. Wolf recognized the roofline of the house in a circa 1884-86 photograph of New Westminster during the course of research he did on the property for Donald Luxton and Associates. Wolf’s research attributes the house to retired Royal Engineer Sapper Charles Digby whose name is on the December 12, 1892 City water hook up. Donald Luxton and Associates produced a Statement Of Significance for the City of New Westminster in 2003-2004 the house based on Wolf’s research.

The earliest the house can be traced in the city directories is 1890 when Royal Avenue is given as the address for hardware merchant George Cunningham Jr, George Cunningham is shown on page 21 of the William’s Vancouver & New Westminster Cities Directory as living in a house on the south side of Royal Between McInnes and Ferris (now Blackie) Streets, between the homes of Alex H. Ferguson to the west and James Flux to the east. Prior to moving to 828 Royal Avenue, Ferguson lived somewhere on Agnes Street and is listed as working for T. Cunningham & Sons.
NWPL Photo #58 shows post-fire Cunningham Hardware Co. circa 1903

George Cunningham and his family lived at 828 Royal Avenue, originally numbered 840 Royal Avenue, for only two years.

George Cunningham Jr. was born on Amherst Island, Ontario on March 22, 1866. He came to New Westminster in 1889 where he worked for most of his life as a hardware merchant. According to the 1890 Williams Vancouver and New Westminster Directory, H. M. Cunningham and Co., located at Columbia on the corner of Begbie, offered a “complete line of shelf hardware, stoves, ranges, tinware, plumbing and house furnishing” and contracting was “a specialty”.

The 1890 Williams Directory lists George’s father also on Royal Avenue. George Cunningham Sr. was born in Ireland on April 15, 1840 and worked as a blacksmith most of his life. His wife, Eliza “Isa” Glenn was born in Ontario on July 17, 1844. Her father’s name was Samuel Glenn. In later life George and Isa lived at 901 St. Andrews. Eliza Cunningham died on May 9, 1919 at the age of 74 and George Cunningham died in New Westminster on November 6, 1919. Both were buried in New Westminster.

By the time of the 1901 census rolled around, George and Carrie Cunningham were living in Vancouver. By the time of the 1911 census it seems that George and Carrie had had a parting of the ways as she moved back to New Westminster and operated a boardinghouse at 703 Agnes Street. George remarried. His second wife’s maiden name was Rena Hefferman. In later life, the George Cunningham lived at 859 Thurlow. He worked as a hardware merchant until his retirement in 1940, died at VGH on November 16, 1945 at the age of 79, and was buried in the New Fraser Cemetery. He was predeceased by his first wife Carrie who died in Essondale on February 25, 1938 at the age of 71.

Prior to 1892, the house at 828 Royal Avenue was not hooked up to the city water and sewage system but most likely got water from a well and had an outhouse. On December 12, 1892, Charles Digby, a retired Royal Engineers Sapper turned farmer, then bricklayer and ultimately Steward for the Royal Columbian Hospital applied for water hook up to the house at 828 Royal Avenue. The house was 780Sq Ft.

NWPL Photo #1651 Charles Digby standing beside monument to brother, James Digby

For all the years Digby is listed in the New Westminster Directories, there does not seem to be any year in which he is shown actually living at 828 Royal Avenue. From 1882 to 1885 he is listed on Agnes Street. After 1885 follow a number of years during which no directories were published. The 1887 Directory gives Digby’s name and occupation but does not list his address. Then in 1889 he is once again listed as living on Agnes near the corner of Clement Street. If Digby and his family lived at 828 Royal Avenue at all, it would have to have been between 1886 and 1888. However, it may well be that he never left Agnes Street during this period.

BC Archives Photo A-01180 Charles Digby

Charles Digby had a colourful life. Born in Braintree, Essex, England in 1840, Digby worked as a bricklayer. A survivor of the horrors of the Crimean War, and a shipwreck, Digby came to Canada with his brother James as a Sapper with the Royal Engineers. He worked on several projects in BC, including the building of the Cariboo Road. After leaving the Royal Engineers, Digby tried his hand at farming on his land grant in Pitt Meadows for some years before moving to New Westminster with his wife Sarah. In New Westminster Digby took up work as a steward at Royal Columbian Hospital and after living on Agnes Street, and then Columbia Street for a number of years, moved to Albert Crecent. The Digby’s we very involved in St. Mary’s Sapperton Anglican Church.

St. Mary's Sapperton 1898 with Rev John Davis and Charles Digby
Courtesy, St. Mary’s Sapperton webpage.

When Digby died August 29, 1907, at the age of 72, the Columbian Newspaper made much of the turnout for his funeral which included a large contingent of Sappers. The actual news clipping is about twice the size of what has been included here. The rest of the article deals in great detail with the number and variety of the floral tributes that covered his coffin. Charles Digby is buried in Digby’s family was very active in New Westminster’s Fraser Cemetery. A more detailed account of Digby’s life and accomplishments is available online at:

The McKercher family lived at 828 Royal Avenue from 1892 to 1897. Prior to moving to 828 Royal Avenue the McKercher family lived on St. Andrews Street. Alexander McKercher was born in Maxville, Glengarry County, Ontario on July 12, 1859, the son of Peter McKercher and Isabella Fisher. His wife, Alice Maud Reeves was born in Norfolk County, Ontario on August 30, 1866, the daughter of Aaron Reeves and Fanny Price. Alexander was Presbyterian and Maud was Anglican. On January 21, 1889, 32 year-old teamster Alexander McKercher married 22 year-old Alice Maud Reeves in New Westminster. The Rev. Thomas Scouler presided.

For the years that Alex McKercher lived at 828 Royal Avenue, he is listed as a teamster, first for the Royal City Planing Mills, and later for the City of New Westminster. From 1992 to 1994, the directories list a number of male lodgers, all employees of the Royal City Planing Mills, living with the McKerchers. Alex Ferguson, who lived next door at 832 Royal Avenue and the lodgers at his house also worked for the Royal City Planing Mills.

The Great Fire of September 10, 1898 burned most houses south of Royal Avenue to the ground but spared 844 (now 832) and only partially damaged 840 (now 828 Royal).

The black line on the map above shows the northernmost extent of the destruction caused by the Great Fire. The map actually shows that the southeast corner of 828 Royal had been at least scorched by the fire, but the rest of the house miraculously saved. Though they may have already moved there before the fire, we know that the McKercher family had moved across the street to 819 (later 821) Royal Avenue and lived there for many years after the fire. Alexander McKercher served as Deputy Warden of Oakalla Prison from 1904 to 1924. Alice Maud McKercher died at Royal Columbian Hospital on My 16, 1923 at the age of 57 and was buried in New Westminster. Alexander McKercher moved to his son’s house at 3140 Princess Street in Burnaby. Alexander McKercher died at Royal Columbian Hospital on February 18, 1937 at the age of 81 and was buried in the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in New Westminster.
Obituary for Alex McKercher

The directory record for the occupation of 828 and 832 Royal Avenue after the Great Fire of 1898 is very difficult to trace. The fact that the directories for New Westminster, if they were published at all in some years, had only alphabetical and no street sections, makes researching New Westminster houses during the first couple of decades of the 20th Century very difficult. The job is made even more impossible by the fact that for the period immediately following the Great Fire the numbering system for the streets was completely rearranged. Instead of numbers growing from east to west, they grow from west to east. Unless a family lived for a long time in the same house until the numbering system reversed again in the 1910s it is almost impossible to find out who lived in what house.

Sadly, therefore, the record of occupation for 828 Royal Avenue is blank from the time of the Great Fire until 1911, the year of the Canada Census.

Charles Digby died August 29, 1907. Although a proper title search is necessary to confirm this, research of most of the 800-block of Royal Avenue and Moody Avenue just below it, as well as a second water hook up request for May 6, 1911 seems to point to the possibility that sometime after Charles Digby’s death, 828 Royal Avenue, and perhaps a number of other lots on the block, were bought by the Abrams family who ran the Royal City Steam Laundry. The Royal City Laundry, originally established on Agnes Street opened at 814 Royal Avenue in late 1907 or early 1908. It was built on the site of the James Flux House which, unlike its neighbour 828 Royal Avenue, burned down in the Great Fire.

Water hook up for the new steam laundry took place in November of 1907. The Laundry appears at 814 Royal Avenue in the 1908 directory. Jonathan “Byard” Abrams is listed as the proprietor. Four years later, A. C. (possibly O. C. for Orlando C.) Abrams, applied for a second water hook up for 828 Royal Avenue. A quick check of the 1911 census and the 1911 New Westminster Directory finds these people living at the house:

Jonathon & Mary Abrams
Driver, Royal City Laundry
Orlando C. Abrams
Driver, Royal City Laundry
Pearl Abrams
Employee, Royal City Laundry
Stella Abrams
Employee, Royal City Laundry
Robert G. & Alice Paterson
Allan Workman
Starcher, Royal City Laundry
Alexander Simpson

Some of the people listed above probably lived in the downstairs rooms. The Abrams family is listed at 828 Royal Avenue in 1912, but in 1913 a tailor Alex McCaulay of Baker & McCaulay Tailors at 48 8th Street is listed there for a year. Then in 1914, a man named Archibald Bowins (no job listed) lives there for a year. From 1915 to 1918 there is a break in the directory record, but then in 1919, Byard Abrams’ brother Milford S. Abrams, foreman and later manager of the Royal City Laundry is listed there until 1925.

It seems that it was during the time the Abrams family owned 828 Royal Avenue that Lot 8 of CB 28 was subdivided with two small houses, 829 and 831 Moody Street being built on what would have been the back of 828 Royal Avenues lot. From time to time the directories show Abrams family members or staff from the Royal City laundry living in these houses.

The Abrams family hailed from Kingston. Milford Stanley Abrams was born in Kingston, Ontario on November 25, 1882 the son of Jonathan Abrams and Mary Matilda Fairbanks. His wife’s name was Gertrude Hadden. His death registration indicates that Milford worked as a laundryman from 1906 to 1946. In later life Milford Abrams lived at 406 9th Street. He died there on July 25, 1958 at the age of 76 and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Burnaby. The Royal City Laundry continued as a business until 1960 when the business was sold and renamed Nelsons Launderers & Dry Cleaners.

西家THE NISHI FAMILY - 1925-1942
From 1925 to 1942 when their family and all Canadians of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from the Pacific Coast after Pearl Harbour, 828 Royal was home to an Issei (First Generation Japanese-Canadian) family, the Nishis. Sennosuke Nishi was born in Kagoshima-Ken, Japan on February 12, 1882, the son of fisherman Isejiro Nishi and Sode Ishikaki. He came to Canada in 1907 and worked all his life as a fisherman. He named his fishing boat ”Shizu” (seen above) after his wife, wife, Shizu Nishiguchi. Shizu was born in Tsuzura-machi in what is now part of Hikone City, Shiga-Ken, Japan on August 20, 1893, the daughter of barber Mikizo Nishiguchi and Matsu Nakamura. She came to Canada in 1913. Her father, Mikizo Nishiguchi would go on to become a prominent New Westminster-based businessman.

Mikizo Nishiguchi surrounded by his grandchildren. Shizu Nishi stands at left.

According to their wedding certificate, Sennosuke was Buddhist and Shizu was Methodist. On January 17, 1917 35 year-old Sennosuke Nishi, the residing on the Naas River, married 24 year-old Shizu in New Westminster’s Japanese Methodist Church. The Rev. Y. Akagawa presided. Witnesses were Mrs. Y. Akagawa and S. Nozoki.

Shizu’s father ran a successful department store, one of the largest Japanese stores in Vancouver and New Westminster, called Nishiguchi Shoten西口商店, (M. Nishiguchi & Company). Shizu Nishiguchi worked as a barber. In some years the directory lists her as running a barber shop at 841 Columbia. This building no longer stands.

828 Royal Avenue in the 1930s
Courtesy of the NW Museum & Archives & Mrs. Lorrane Elliott

Lorraine Elliott, the Nishi’s niece, remembers that when her aunt and uncle lived at 828 Royal Avenue the bookkeeper from her father’s company, M. Nishiguchi & Co. lived in the downstairs suite. As far as she can recollect, the house was painted white, although other relatives remember it as cream colour.

The Nishi’s were avid gardeners and grew magnificent Kiku 菊 (chrysanthemums). During the summer, the boat-shaped metal planter on the front porch was filled with nasturtiums. Lorraine remembers standing on the wicker chairs that were on the front porch and playing in the dirt and getting scolded for disturbing the roots. The Nishi family also kept chickens in a coop in the back yard.

Bridge River Townsite. The huts for the Japanese internees can be seen in the bottom left of the picture. Andy Cleven photo

After Pearl Harbour, the Nishi family, like all Nikkei, was forced out of their house and sent into the interior. They were sent to the extremely isolated community of Bridge River on Seton Lake, near Shalalth, BC, which is near Lilloett. Bridge River was technically not an internment camp but called a "Self-supporting centre". Bridge River was in a mountainous area so physically isolated that fences and guards were not required as the only egress from that region was by rail or water only. However you call it, life was not easy for the Nishi family in Bridge River.

Lorraine Mitsue Elliott, the Nishi’s niece, remembers her father, Asajiro Nishiguchi--who was Shizue's brother--sitting his six children down and imparting this important lesson: “They can take away our material things, but they cannot take away our dignity.” Lorraine's aunt Shizue died at Bridge River Hospital of angina pectoris and bronchial asthma on November 16, 1943. She was only 50 years old. The family had to get special permission from the RCMP to accompany Shizu’s body by train back to New Westminster for cremation. On Shizu’s death certificate, her time in Bridge River was noted to the exact day by her brother, Magojiro Nishiguchi: one year, five months and 19 days…

Sennosuke never returned to New Westminster but moved to Ashcroft after the war. He died at Slocan Community Hospital in New Denver on June 18, 1955 at the age of 72. Sennosuke had had a stroke around 1945 and his niece Lorraine got into the nursing profession as a result of her desire to care for her beloved uncle. Later on, she was hired as one of the first Nikkei flight attendants working for Canadian Pacific Airlines.

After the Nishi family was taken away to Bridge River the house stood vacant for a year, then dropped altogether from the directory records until 1950. This is unusual for a house not to be recorded like this. Most times, when a house was vacant, it was listed as “Vacant,” not deleted from the streetscape altogether. What was happening with the house is a mystery that a title search may solve. Perhaps the house was being held in trust by someone for the Nishi or Nishiguchi family during the war. Either way, just as suddenly as it disappeared, it reappeared in the directory in 1950.

If the directory is to be trusted, the Roberge family who are shown to have lived at 828 Royal from 1950 to 1952 were renters. The Roberge family moved to 828 Royal Avenue from 1038 Anderson. Longshoreman Armande Herve Roberge was born in Burmont, Alberta on May 30, 1920, the son of Runo and May Roberge. His wife, Margaret Lanita Haythorne, was born in Tisdale, Saskatchewan on November 5, 1924. The Roberge family came to BC around 1946. The 1952 directoryshows the Roberge family sharing 828 Royal Avenue with another family: Richard and Jean Pocha. Richard Pocha was a longshoreman as well.

In later life, the Roberge family lived at 12166 72nd Avenue in Surrey. Around March 1, 1969, Margaret Roberge was taken to Royal Columbian Hospital for heart complications. She died there on March 5, 1969 of a cardiac tamponade at the age of 44 and was buried in Surrey’s Valleyview Memorial Gardens. Armand remarried to a woman named Muriel Grace and moved to 205A 11th Street in New Westminster. He died at St. Mary’s Hospital on November 3, 1976 and was buried in Fraser Cemetery.

The most recent owners of 828 Royal Avenue were the Chong family. The directories list Mr. Kan Chong 蔣勤 as the proprietor of the Tong Kee Dry Goods store at 37 8th Street. In later years, the name of the store was changed to Tong Kee Men’s Wear.
From left to Right: Lawrence Chong, Lee Pek (Pekfong Chong), Gladys Chong, Kenneth Chong, Michael Chong, Kan Chong and Susanne Chong

Mr. Kan Chong was a prominent member of New Westminster’s Chinese community. He was born in Mui Gok Village 梅閣鄉 in Sun Wui Province 新會縣 in Canton (now Guangdong), China on December 24, 1906 (according to his death certificate signed by his son Ming F. Chong). He arrived in Vancouver off the Empress of Russia on May 16, 1921. He paid the head tax on June 14, 1921, (See form above) and became a Canadian citizen in 1949. During the war, Kan Chong had volunteered to serve as a civil defense worker.
Kan Chong's certificate of Canadian Citizenship
(Reverse side below)
His wife’s maiden name was Pekfong Lee. Kan and Pekfong married on November 8, 1951 and bought the house at 828 Royal Avenue the same year. The family may have moved in as early as 1952 although the BC Directory shows the Roberge family still in the house in that year. The 1953 Directory actually identifies the residents of 828 Royal Avenue as “Orientals”.

Besides operating the Tong Kee Dry Goods (later Men’s Wear) Company at 37 8th Street, during his life, Kan Chong served as the President of New Westminster’s Chinese Benevolent Association, President of the New Westminster Chapter of the Chinese Nationalist League國民党, and the Principal of the local Chinese School. As such, he wielded great influence in New Westminster’s Chinese community.

Like many Chinese immigrants of his generation, Kan Chong had had a wife and family back in China. Kan Chong had two sons in China: Ming and Shue Chong. When the first Mrs. Chong passed away in China, Ming and Shue came to Canada.  With his second wife, Lee Pek (known as Pekfong Chong in the directories) Kan Chong had five children. The eldest of these was a daughter, Suzanne. She was followed by twins: Gladys and Lawrence. Then came Kenneth Samuel, and finally John Michael.

Lawrence, Susanne, Gladys, and Kenneth Chong. Note the garage which once stood to the west of the house

At some point in the 1950s or 60s, Kan Chong contracted F. H. Shaw & Son to put in a new concrete foundation for the house. Despite this, the house has had foundation problems as a neighbouring business dug a large pit beside the property and did not install a proper retaining wall. The back of the house has had to be shored up from time to time ever since.

Kan Chong was a generous benefactor beyond the New Westminster’s Chinese Canadian community. In 1975, Kan Chong donated the former site of the CBA Chinese Language School on Victoria Street to the City of New Westminster. The property, recently assessed at $600,000 is 66’ by 132’ and is currently being proposed for a new City Park, possibly an off-leash dog park.

Kan Chong died at Royal Columbian Hospital on December 31, 1979 at the age of 73 and was buried in Fraser Cemetery. His son, Ming F. Chong of 2781 East 55th Avenue, Burnaby is listed as the informant on Mr. Chong’s death certificate. Note how the year of Mr. Chong's birth noted on his death certificate is different than that noted on his tombstone. The Chinese text reads: 蔣公勤之墓 Chong Gong Kan’s Grave (the middle character "Gong" is an honorific inserted in the deceased person’s name on the gravestone between the surname and the given name) 新會縣 Sun Wui Yuen (Sun Wui County) 梅閣鄉 Mui Gok Heung (Mui Gok Village).

After Mr. Chong died, the family business at 37 8th Street was changed to Steph’s Neighbourhood Candy Store. There is a picture of it taken in 1984. The property was expropriated in 1985 for the new New Westminster to Vancouver Skytrain Route. The Chong family was paid $115,000 for the property.

37 8th Street NWPL Photo 2245 Steph's Neighbourhood Candy Store. Photo by Lance E. Thatcher

Lawrence Chong moved with his mother to a new house he built in Burnaby. Leepek (Pekfong) Chong passed away in August of 2005. Her remains were cremated and her ashes interred in Fraser Cemetery.

From 1985 to recent years, 828 Royal Avenue has been rented out to a number of tenants. During that period, Royal Avenue was enlarged to a four lane road from two, raising the street level by a couple of feet and cutting off access to street parking.

Early Chong family photos show a small yard in front of the house surrounded by a picket fence. Note the garage visible in the photo below. Most of this front yard and the garage were lost due to the expansion of Royal Avenue. When the front porch, visible in the picture when the Nishi family lived at the house, was removed and replaced with a lawn is unknown.

Linda (a friend of Susanne Chong) and Mrs. Lee Pek (Pekfong) Chong


Kenneth, Lee Pek, Lawrence, Susanne, Gladys in the back yard

Kenneth Chong and companion cat

L-R: Kenneth, Lee Pek Chong, unknown, Susanne. The older woman is Bak Wan, a family friend who lived in the basement suite for a short time.

Michael Chong, aka Dr. J. M. Chong, now professor of organic chemistry at the U. Waterloo

Lee Pek and Susanne in the house 1953 or 1954

Susanne, Lee Pek and Kenneth, taken from yard looking south, 1955

Pekfong (Lee Pek) in kitchen circa 1966


1897 Fire Insurance Map for New Westminster
This is the earliest Fire Insurance Map to show the house at 828, then 840 Royal Avenue. Note the original size of Toronto Place and the Jail just north of Ontario.

A Close Up View of the Same 1897 Map

The south side of Royal Avenue is largely undeveloped. Alexander Ferguson and his wife Elizabeth still live at 832 (then 844) Royal Avenue, the McKercher family is at 828 (then 840), and the Flux family live at 816 Royal Avenue.

Map Showing the Extent of the Damage
Wrought by the Great Fire of September 10, 1898
By some miracle, 828 and 832 Royal Avenue escaped destruction in the Great Fire. Despite that fact, the occupants of both the surviving houses moved elsewhere the following year.

Here is the 1897 Map Corrected to 1905

1913 Goads Atlas of New Westminster

Note how the creators of this map somehow failed to include the houses on the north side of Royal Avenue. By 1913, two houses on the south side of the lot, 829 and 831 Moody have been built. It would seem from what can be seen behind that letter O that sometime between 1905 and 1913 the extension to 828 Royal has been built.

1907 Fire Insurance Map of New Westminster
Corrected to 1917
It is frustrating that this map is so poorly reproduced as it a lot of changes that has gone on in the block not readily visible in the previous map, including the extension to 828 Royal and the two new houses behind it on Moody

The researcher would like to thank the following people for their kind assistance and advice in this project: Mr. and Mrs. Krishan Anand, Lorraine Elliot (née Nishiguchi), Lawrence Chong, Graham Elvidge, Stephen Scheving, Donald Luxton, Jim Wolf, the management and staff at the New Westminster Museum & Archives, and the staff at the New Westminster Public Library.

Other Resources Used:

St. Mary The Virgin, Sapperton Website

Royal Engineers Website

Bridge River Townsite Web Page
Photograph by Andy Cleven


  1. i pulled off a wall and there is newspapers from 1894 I commend you on your work as I think it is important to document the changing of the city and the buildings as it evolves

  2. I had hoped to salvage some bricks for the niece of the Japanese family who lived in the house. If anyone can save me some, it would mean a lot to the Lorraine Mitsue Elliott, and to me...

  3. Interesting story, James! I keep meaning to visit the New Westminster Archives. My great-grandparents came to New West from Ontario in the 1870s. My great-grandfather was a merchant tailor and had a business there, on Columbia Street.

  4. The house is right next to where I used to take my car for servicing - that red building in the shot. I'd never noticed the house before. Thanks for the post!

  5. Wow! You have such an interesting job! I love reading up about history of houses. Job well done. Thanks for the post!

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  8. plasterer surrey
    I found your website the other day and after reading a handful of posts, thought I would say thank you for all the great content. Keep it coming! I will try to stop by here more often.

  9. hi i just found your blog by chance i live not to far from royal ave . thank you for so much great information and photos . great work .

  10. amazing. I am trying to research our home, moody park area. it is a lot of fun, and I enjoy stumbling across sites like yours in my search..
    brandy t